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Can A Civilian Run A License Plate? Is It Illegal To Look Up License Plates?

Can A Civilian Run A License Plate? Is It Illegal To Look Up License Plates?

Perhaps you encountered a driver on the road, who was rude and cut you off. Or maybe you found a driver who you want to connect with. Now, you want to get that person’s license plate and run it to see where he or she lives. But, can a civilian run a license plate? We have the details you need now! 


Our license plate tells lots of information about us as well as our vehicle. It’s illegal for a car not to have a license plate and if you are caught without one, then you face some serious fines, and you may even face imprisonment. 

So, for the person who wants to run a license plate, the act itself is illegal. Even though there are sites on the Internet that make the promise to help trace license plates, you have to pay a hefty fee. 

Is It Illegal To Look Up License Plates?

The short answer is “yes”. If you go to your local DMV or license plate office and you ask for the person who owns a car, of a license plate you wrote down, that DMV or license plate agent will refuse your request. Depending on why you want the license, you may want to contact your local law enforcement or police department. For example, if someone was speeding down the street and then hit another car, then sped off, then, you need to give that license plate to the police, so that they can take over from there. You need not take matters into your own hands. We called a local DMV office and was told that it is indeed illegal for a civilian to run a license plate and that agent also told us that anyone who is caught running a license plate, could face some serious consequences. 

Let’s delve a bit deeper into this issue and examine can a civilian run a license plate. 

What Information Does A Police Officer See When She Or He Runs A License Plate Number? 

As we stated earlier, running a license plate is illegal if you are a civilian. So, don’t do it, even if a friend gives you a “hook up”. In lots of large cities in our country, police officers and their cars are outfitted with the latest technology that can scan hundreds of license plates in under a minute. Even smaller towns in our county have police departments that have a budget for equipment and computers that can run license plates fast. So, what kind of information does a police officer have access to or see, when he or she runs a license plate? 

  1. The name and address of the vehicle owner. Be prepared to discuss this with the officer if you are not the owner and you are pulled over. 
  2. The full and complete address of the vehicle owner. 
  3. If the plate is registered in a state.
  4. If the car has been listed as a stolen vehicle. 
  5. If the license plate is a match to the vehicle it is on. 
  6. In some states, police can even see if there is active as well as valid car insurance on the car. 

Of course, you as a civilian will NOT have access to this information, but if you are ever pulled over, the police will point out any irregularities after they run the license plate. For example, if you are driving your sister’s car, and you are not the owner of the car, prepare to discuss this with the officer. Or if the vehicle has been reported stolen, well then that is a whole other article that we need to write! 

Why Do You Want To Run a License Plate in The First Place? 

If you are interested in running a license plate yourself, then you have to ask you inner being why you want to run the license plate in the first place? Check out a few scenarios in which a civilian wants to run a license plate. 

 A Hit And Run 

Did you just get hit in the rear while driving or coming to a complete stop, but you managed to take a video or a photo of the car that just sped off? Then, chances are vengeance is on your mind and you want to run that license plate, and maybe embarrass the car owner, due to your misfortune. We know you have heard it before, but you cannot take matters into your own hands. Furthermore, despite the digital era we live in or the “social media” lives that we all live, you cannot post someone’s license plate on your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account. First of all, the car may have been stolen and the rightful owner may not have been the one who it you. What you CAN do, is post the damage to your car and perhaps a description of the car that hit you. What you want to do in this instance, is go to the police, show them your video, provide them with the license plate, and let them take care of the hit and run. 

You Want To Do Some Research 

Are you researching cars or vehicles and want to run a license place to do it? Don’t. If you’re in the market for a new or a used car, you need to just research the car and then find out about the vehicle of your choice, by visiting a dealership or doing your research online. 

You Have Good Intentions Or Personal Motives 

OK- so maybe you were not hit from behind while driving to the grocery store. You have personal motives for wanting to run a license plate. Perhaps you saw a gorgeous woman or a man at a stop light and you want to give him or her your number. So, you want to run that license plate. No way! First of all, you have no idea if this person is married or involved with someone else.  Secondly, this is an invasion of privacy. What will you tell a judge or a police officer? “Your honor or Sir or Madam, this driver at the light was so beautiful I had to get to know him or her better!” 

Or maybe you have someone at the job, who keeps taking your parking space or parking as if they have no sense of space. So, you want to get back at the person who has no idea how to park, by looking up their license plate and finding out who they are. Please don’t. Just take down the plate, take photos of the horrendous parking they do in the lot and then allow the parking attendant or the police to write the driver a ticket for taking up two parking spaces. 

What About Those Online License Plate Lookup Sites? 

OK, so you came across one of those “free” license plate lookup sites- did you notice that we put the word free in quotes? First of all, there is nothing “free” about looking up someone’s license plate. Secondly, what guarantee do you have that the information is accurate? Thirdly, for just about all of those sites, you have to enter your credit card information, while agreeing to a monthly subscription. Who needs a monthly subscription for looking up someone’s plates? You have money to spend on THAT? Stay clear of those “free” sites and just allow a police officer to handle the matter. 

What About Hiring A Private Investigator To Run A License Plate? 

A private investigator may be able to help you locate a car owner, based on the license plate you provide the P.I. Additionally, a private investigator will also obtain information similar to a police office, after running a license plate. So, what can a private investigator obtain from a license plate?  

The current vehicle owner’s address 

Similar to a police officer, a private investigator may be able to obtain the vehicle’s current owner and address. 

The Vehicle Owner’s Name 

Depending on where you live, the P.I you hire may be able to locate the name of the current vehicle owner. But the accuracy of this will depend on the sources that the P.I uses. 

A Description of the Vehicle 

The P.I. you hire may also be able to obtain a description of the vehicle that the license plate is connected to. 

Should you feel the need to hire a private investigator, you want to make sure that you get a contact for his or her services. The more you have in writing, the better your outcome may be. 

Can Someone Find Out Where I Live By My License Plate? 

If you are in the market for looking for a name and address using a license plate you just wrote down, then you are on your own and you risk going against the DMV or other government agencies. So, you will have to resort to using the Internet. Lots of sites allow you to plug in a license plate number and choose the state where the plate is connected.  Here’s something to keep in mind: many state laws will dictate what kind of information is obtainable about a driver, by looking up a license plate. In many states, looking up a name and address using a license plate number is illegal.

 

It’s always best to either just leave the desire to locate someone by using their license plate- alone. Or if someone hit you and you were able to jot down the car’s license plate- just let the police handle it. Given social medial and Internet access, we all live in an era of “I can do this myself”. But you don’t what to create more drama for yourself by trying to run a license plate on your own. Leave it to law enforcement to fight this particular battle for you, should you need to fight it.